At 86, Easter Lily Gates needed a ride to and from church on Sunday mornings. She no longer felt safe driving at her age, so she needed help getting places, her beloved church in particular. She mentioned her need as I was interviewing her for a profile feature I was preparing to write in The Miami Herald. Betsy and I happily volunteered, and so on Sunday mornings for several months, she squeezed into our Dodge Dart with us and our three young daughters, treating us all to some great conversation. We knew we were in the presence of a true pioneer, a member of Broward County royalty, and one of the most unforgettable characters I had ever met.
Most residents of Fort Lauderdale and indeed all of Broward County, Florida, knew Easter Lily. That’s her real name. She was born on Easter Sunday 1889 in Des Moines, Iowa. For 40 years she served as the colorful yet no-nonsense Supervisor of Elections for the county and was an enthusiastic participant in the local political scene. She loved to share stories of her life, and oh, what stories.
As a child, she headed west with her parents, part of the way in a covered wagon, to Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and eventually to Nevada and Utah’s mining camps. She met her husband, George Gates, when at age 17, she was working in a millinery store. The job endowed her with a love of large, flowery hats, which she wore for the rest of her life. She decorated the walls of her Fort Lauderdale Supervisor of Elections office with them.
In 1918 she and George, who worked as a steamfitter, moved to Fort Lauderdale with their two sons. George became ill, and Easter Lily, carried her ailing husband and two boys up a flight of stairs in 1926, blocking the door to protect her young family from the roaring winds of a powerful hurricane.
Before she entered politics, she served as the first female school bus driver in the county. Three years after that hurricane and the death of her husband she ran for election as Supervisor of Elections and went on to serve 40 years, never losing an election. She believed it was her duty to encourage every eligible person to register to vote and to encourage each one to exercise that privilege to vote.
A few years after those memorable rides to and from church with our family, she moved to a retirement community in Oldsmar on Florida’s west coast, where at 95 she died in 1985. I will never forget her comment during one of those Sunday rides. She had just celebrated her 86th birthday and was reflecting on her advancing age. “You know, it’s a little embarrassing,” she told us. “I know I should feel old, but I really don’t. In my mind, I still feel like a teenager.”